Georgia Boater Education Course


CHAPTER 2: Boating Equipment


A Visual Distress Signal (VDS)any device designed to show that your vessel is in distress and help others locate you. is any device you can use to help others locate your boat quickly in the case of an emergency. Visual distress signals include day signals that are visible in sunlight, night signals that are visible in the dark, and anytime signals that can be used both day and night. VDS are either pyrotechnic, which use smoke and flame, or non-pyrotechnic, which are non-combustible. There are a wide variety of signals that can be carried to meet federal boating regulations.

The law states that no person may use a distress signal under any circumstances unless assistance is needed because of immediate or potential danger to the persons onboard.

In other words, never use a VDS unless it’s an emergency. Breaking the law can come with serious penalties!

All recreational boats operating in U.S. Coastal Waters or the Great Lakes, or bodies of water directly connected to U.S. Coastal Waters or the Great Lakes---up to a point where those waters are less than 2 miles wide---are required by law to be equipped with visual distress signals.

U.S. owned boats must also carry visual distress signals when operating in international waters.

There are some exceptions. During daytime hours the following boats are not required to carry visual distress signals:

  • Boats less than 16 feet in length;
  • Boats participating in organized events, such as regattas;
  • Open sailboats that are less than 26 feet in length and not equipped with an engine;
  • And manually propelled boats, such as canoes.

These boats are only required to carry night signals when operating at night in the above listed waters.